["An Impromptu Dance" is a short story which was first narrated by "A. J. Alan" in a BBC Radio broadcast sometime between 1924 and 1928. It was finally collected in Good Evening, Everyone! (1928). Alan's real name was Leslie Harrison Lambert, and although he was one of the most popular and pioneering broadcasters from the early days of wireless, he currently does not even have a Wikipedia entry. He is listed in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for those who have subscriber access, and two rare recordings of him at work have been generously posted here.
It is my understanding that the copyright for Alan's fiction expired at the beginning of this year, making him now ripe for inclusion in Wordsworth's excellent Mystery and Supernatural Series, but if there are any issues over reproducing "An Impromptu Dance" on this website then please contact me at email@example.com. Tychy has hitherto posted Alan's "The Dream" and "The Suitcase," and I may post more, if not all, of his fiction if no new edition of his work is forthcoming. A handful of his tales are available on Gutenberg. Ed.]
AN IMPROMPTU DANCE.
If there’s one thing I bar more than another it’s being fetched up to London during one’s summer leave. This happened to me last year. It was during a heat wave – it would be.
A friend of mine was having an action brought against him over a motor accident, and as I had been with him when it happened (he was driving all right) he wanted me to give evidence.
So I came up from Devonshire by a night train, in order to waste as little of my leave as possible, and drove to an hotel. I couldn’t go home, because our house was shut up and inches deep in naphthaline.
When I’d had a bath and so on I went to the Law Courts and spent the stuffiest and stickiest day I ever remember.
The facts of the case weren’t particularly interesting. A silly woman had driven out of a side-turning almost into us, and in swerving to avoid her we’d skidded across the road on to the pavement.
The worst of it was we’d knocked a dustbin slap into a fish shop. The fishmonger was naturally rather peevish at getting his premises plastered all over with his yesterday’s stock, and he was claiming damages. Fifty pounds, I think he wanted.
My friend wouldn’t pay because it wasn’t his fault – at least, his insurance company wouldn’t pay – and the girl said it wasn’t her fault either.
The case took all day, and it was simply astounding how many different accounts could be given of the same accident. I can’t think why no prosecutions for perjury followed.
The judge complimented me on my evidence, but I’m not sure that he quite believed it. He said it was very well thought out. However, he dismissed the action against my friend, with costs, which was the great thing.
We went and dined at his club – my friend’s, not the judge’s – and I got back to my hotel somewhere between half-past nine and ten.
There was nothing to do and it was frightfully hot, so I decided to have a long tepid bath and go to bed.
When I came out of the bathroom I heard the sound of dance music coming from further down the corridor. So I walked towards it.
There was no one in sight – it wouldn’t have mattered if there had been – I was properly clothed – pyjamas, dressing-gown made of that bath towel stuff, slippers, and a towel round my head.
Anyway, I strolled along, and a little way past my bedroom door the corridor widened out into a sort of place with marble pillars and palms and sofas and things.
There was a wide staircase leading down from it into a hall on the ground floor, which had a ballroom opening out of it and a dance going on. There was another room off this hall where drinks could be heard going, so, of course, there was a constant stream of people wandering backwards and forwards between the two.
Some of these people looked very funny – I forgot to say it was a fancy dress dance – and I thought: “I’ll watch this for a bit,” so I leant over my nice cool marble balustrade and smoked a cigarette.
Presently a man threaded his way through the couples sitting on the stairs and came right up on to my landing. He was dressed in white flowing garments and an Arab head-dress, so I took him to be a Sheik, Shike, or Shake, whichever you like to call it.
He was trying to get at pockets which weren’t there, and when he saw me he said: “For the love of Mike give me a match,” so I did, and then we both leant over the balcony and smoked.
After a time he said there’d be the father and mother of a row if he didn’t go back to his partner. “What about a drink first?” And do you know it was only then that it dawned on me that he thought I was at the dance, so to speak.
He took my get-up for fancy dress. I was frightfully sunburnt, too, after a month at the sea, and that lent colour to the idea. Anyway, it occurred to me that if he was taken in, other people might be, and if they were why shouldn’t I have a drink?
You may think it was rather unconventional, but you’ve no idea how hot it was. At all events we went down the stairs to the supper-room and had some very excellent champagne cup.
While we were having it a girl came up and spoke to the man I was with. She was dressed as a – well, it’s rather hard to say what she was dressed as because she hardly was, but she certainly was what is vulgarly known as a peach.
She said: “Eric, I’ve been looking for you everywhere, and here you are, drinking.”
He said: “Let me introduce you to Miss Blake” (I think he said she was his cousin), and we got her some champagne cup and then all the three of us sat in a quiet corner and talked.
As soon as we felt a little less parched she said: “What about dancing?” Eric didn’t seem very keen so she asked me what did I think about it?
Well – I really didn’t see why not, having got so far. So I danced with her for the best part of an hour. We chatted about various things, including our hostess. Why did I think she didn’t get married again? I said: “Oh, I don’t know, people don’t always.” Not knowing who our hostess was I had to be rather non-committal.
Then Miss Blake – that’s my partner, you know – got on to the subject of our hostess’s daughter. There were apparently some funny stories going the rounds about her gambling, and so on, and there’d be a bust-up if she wasn’t careful.
I just said: “Oh, yes,” and left it at that. I never like listening to scandal, unless it’s about people I know, and it was so difficult not to give myself away.
Dancing wasn’t too easy either – you try it in Turkish slippers and no socks on with a girl who really can. I wasn’t sorry when she suggested a breather, but I did not expect to have to go out into the road for it.
However, that was considered the tony thing to do – other people were doing it, too – so it couldn’t be helped. We went for a walk along Bayswater Road and down Palace Gardens.
I must say it felt a bit strange. Of course, we’ve all dreamt of being out in – say – Oxford Street, unsuitably clad, but it’s quite another thing to go and do it in real life. And play the fool as well. We very nearly went for a ride on the top of a bus, only neither of us had any money. I was very thankful to get back without us both being run in.
But she was an amusing child. She told me a most gruesome story. Quite proper and all that. It was about an old servant of theirs who left and got married.
After about a year the husband unfortunately went and died, which was awful bad luck on the wife, just when she’d got used to seeing him about the house, and she thought she’d miss him.
Well, the wife had a brother who was a bird stuffer. (Mind you, this is perfectly ridiculous because it would never have been allowed for a moment, but she swore it was true.) She got this brother to – er – exercise his talent, and afterwards they dressed up the wretched husband in his best Sunday clothes and mounted him in an arm-chair in her sitting-room.
Great success – they gave an “at home” for him. People came from miles round. But one fine day she went dashing round to the neighbours in a great state. She said: “Do come and look at Mr. Steele, he’s begun to crack.” She told me another story, too, but there was just a hint of the macabre about it, so I won’t repeat it.
It was very nearly midnight when we did get back to the hotel, and I was beginning to feel rather sleepy, having been on the go all day, so after one more fox-trot I restored my partner to Eric and escaped up to my room.
When I came to switch on the light over the bed it wouldn’t – the filament of the lamp had evidently gone – so I took the one out of the fitting over the dressing-table and shoved that on instead.
Then I settled down to read in bed for a few minutes, as I often do. It’s a shocking habit, but I’m not as bad as a certain friend of mine. He does all his reading in bed – over his wife’s shoulder. I can’t understand how he manages at all.
Every now and then she moves an arm or something and blots out five left-hand pages running. That isn’t all. During the day she reads perhaps thirty pages entirely on her own, and he never sees those at all. He just goes on from where she begins at night. How he ever gets the hang of the plot beats me.
However, I don’t do that, and at the end of two or three minutes I turned off the light and fell asleep.
The next thing I remember was the sound of my door opening and two people coming in. They were a man and a girl, evidently from the dance down below, and looking for somewhere quiet to sit down.
They tried to switch on the light from the door but, of course, nothing happened because that switch worked the one over the dressing-table, and I’d taken the bulb out.
The man said: “It doesn’t matter,” and the girl said: “I suppose there’s no one in here?” He said: “Of course not, or the door would have been locked.” Which only showed how little he knew – my experience is that the only people who lock their doors are the ones who needn’t.
However, they groped about until they found my bed and sat down on the edge of it with a great crunch of springs. I happened to be lying rather to the other side, so they didn’t encounter me.
He said: “I expect you know what I’ve brought you here for,” and the joke was she didn’t – and I must confess that I didn’t either. It did cross my mind to sing out and say: “Excuse me, but my bed, I think”; but after all it was entirely their fault, so I kept on lying very still and hoping for the best.
However, it was quite all right, as it happened; he’d brought her in to propose to her, which he proceeded to do – and very interesting it was.
You needn’t tell me that I oughtn’t to have listened. I know that, but proposals are like dead donkeys – you only come across them with comparative raredom, and I wasn’t going to miss a word.
First of all he gave her full details of his financial position and prospects, which didn’t strike me as any too bright, by the way.
They didn’t her either. One could tell that by the way she fidgeted about. And she was only after money. A most unpleasant young person.
The unfortunate youth’s chances went completely West when she found out that he’d got very nearly as big an overdraft as she had. All bets were off then and they got up to go, but when they got near the door there were voices outside in the corridor, and they daren’t go out.
It sounded to me as though the people outside were looking for something. I heard a woman say: “It’s no use looking for it up here because I never came up here.”
After a time the people cleared off and my visitors slipped out, and I knew no more till the chambermaid brought my morning tea.
She put the tray down on a chair near the door and went across to the window and drew the curtains. On her way back to the tray I heard her stoop and pick up something.
I opened one eye to see what it was and saw that she’d got hold of a black silk bag. She was just going to open it when it seemed about time to interfere.
I said: “How’d it be if you put that bag down?” She said: “What’s it doing on your floor?” I told her it belonged to my wife – it wouldn’t have done to pretend not to know whose it was.
She was rather inclined to be insolent. She said: “I don’t see your wife anywhere about.” I said: “No, my wife’s down in Devonshire, minding her own business, but you might give me her bag all the same.”
She’d nothing to say to that. She chucked the bag on the bed, stalked out, and slammed the door. Then I had a look at it. It was very expensive. Black moire with a diamond monogram. The frame was set with diamonds, too. I opened it, and the things inside – one of them, at any rate – were even more expensive.
I wished it was, that is to say were, my wife’s bag. I should have liked to take it back with me as a present, only it wouldn’t have been honest – and they weren’t the right initials.
No, of course, it had obviously been dropped by the girl who’d come in during the night and been proposed to, and it was most imperative that she should have it back.
The trouble was I hadn’t the vaguest idea who she was, and there was nothing in the bag to help me. A monogram doesn’t get you very far. I couldn’t very well go to the management about it, because of what I’d told the chambermaid, and goodness knows what story she’d made out of it.
Even if she hadn’t said anything I couldn’t go to the office and say: “I found this bag on my bedroom floor this morning and I don’t know whose it is.”
So the only hope was to find out the name of the woman who’d given the dance and get it to her somehow. I managed to dodge the office over this, too.
I asked the hall porter – they always know everything – and he gave me the hostess’s address. I called on her on my way to Paddington – she lived in a nice flat near Lancaster Gate. Needless to say she wasn’t up – at least, not quite up. She sent out word that if my business was really urgent she could see me in ten minutes.
I said it was urgent and could she possibly make it five minutes as I had a train to catch. She split the difference and kept me waiting in the drawing-room for a quarter of an hour. The room was what my wife would call very busy. There were sixty-three photograph frames – among other things. I didn’t envy the maid who had to dust them. Why, there were even things on the piano.
When the good lady came in I remembered having seen her several times the night before. Luckily she didn’t recognize me. Perhaps my not being in a dressing-gown and having no towel round my head served as a disguise. She was a charming woman of about forty-five or perhaps fifty, but oh, so talkative.
She began to ask me what I wanted and then spotted the bag. She simply fell on it. How had I found it? Where had I found it? When had I found it?
She could never thank me enough for bringing it back. It was her daughter’s bag. Her daughter had been so worried about losing it that she couldn’t sleep a wink all night.
She’d started off for the hotel only a few minutes before to see if it had been found. Hadn’t I met her on the stairs and so on?
She never waited for answers to any of her questions so I didn’t have to give any – which was just as well.
She went on to tell me that the bag wasn’t the only thing that had been lost at the dance. One of her guests had lost an extremely valuable emerald brooch.
They’d hunted for it everywhere but without success. Did I think she ought to put an advertisement in the paper, or notify the police, or what?
I didn’t quite know what to say – I advised her to wait till her daughter came back and see what luck she’d had. I should have liked to wait, too, but the situation was getting a little too complicated, so I remembered my train and left.
And I’m going to bore you a little longer by explaining exactly how complicated the situation was.
First of all, you realize that the girl who’d sat on my bed the night before was this woman’s own daughter, so I couldn’t say where I’d found the bag.
Secondly, if the daughter had made really thorough inquiries at the hotel she’d have come across my chambermaid. My chambermaid would have told her two things, one being that my room hadn’t been empty, and the other that I’d claimed her bag as belonging to my wife.
Thirdly, the daughter would come back morally certain that both her mother and I had looked in the bag; and, lastly, the bag did contain an extremely valuable emerald brooch.
So, as I say, I departed.
There was a girl getting out of a taxi at the main entrance of the flats as I went out, and I tell you, you couldn’t have seen me for dust and small stones.